New Zealand school children discover new species

The giant penguin Kawhia Kairuku waewaeroa. Credit Simone Giovanardi

A fossilized giant penguin discovered by New Zealand schoolchildren has been revealed as a new species in the peer-reviewed study Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by researchers at Massey University.

Penguins have a fossil record dating back almost as far as the age of the dinosaurs, and the oldest of these penguins was discovered in Aotearoa. Fossil penguins from Zealandia (ancient Aotearoa) are best known from Otago and Canterbury, although important discoveries have recently been made at Taranaki and Waikato.

In 2006, a group of school children on a Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club (JUNATS) fossil-hunting excursion in Kawhia Harbor led by the club’s fossil expert Chris Templer discovered the bones of a giant fossil penguin.

Researchers from Massey University and the Bruce Museum (Connecticut, USA) visited the Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato to analyze the fossil bones of the ancient penguin. The team used 3D scanning as part of their investigation and compared the fossil to digital versions of bones from around the world. 3D scanning also allowed the team to produce a 3D printed replica of the fossil for Hamilton Junior naturalists. The real penguin fossil was donated by the club to the Waikato Museum in 2017.

Dr Daniel Thomas, lecturer in zoology at Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences, says the fossil is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old and dates from a time when much of Waikato was under water.

“The penguin looks like Kairuku giant penguins were first described in Otago but have much longer legs, which researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – Te reo Māori for “long legs”. These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than the others Kairuku as he walked on land, possibly about 1.4 meters tall, and may have influenced how fast he could swim or how deep he could dive,” says Dr Thomas..

“It was a real privilege to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin. We know how important this fossil is to so many people,” he adds.

Kairuku waewaeroa is iconic for so many reasons. The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that stretch far back in time, and this sharing gives us an important stewardship role. How the penguin fossil was discovered, by children exploring nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians].”

Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club says it’s something the kids involved will remember for the rest of their lives.

“It was a rare privilege for the kids in our club to have the opportunity to discover and save this huge fossil penguin. We always encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. are just waiting to be discovered.

Steffan Safey was there for the discovery and rescue missions. “It’s a little surreal to know that a discovery we made as children so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it’s even a new species! Existence giant penguins in New Zealand is barely known so it’s really great to know that the community is still studying and learning more about them Obviously the day spent carving it out of the sandstone has went well!”

Dr Esther Dale, a plant ecologist who now lives in Switzerland, was also present.

“It’s quite exciting to be involved in the discovery of such a large and relatively complete fossil, let alone a new species! I’m excited to see what we can learn about the evolution of penguins and life in New Zealand.

Alwyn Dale assisted in the recovery of the fossil. “It was definitely one of those slightly surreal things to look back on – an absolute moment for me. After joining JUNATS, there were some pretty iconic stories of incredible discoveries and special experiences – and the excavation of a giant penguin fossil must be up there!A true testament to all the parents and volunteers who have given their time and resources to create unique and formative memories for club members.

Taly Matthews, a longtime member of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club and who works for the Taranaki Department of Conservation, says: “Finding a fossil is quite exciting when you think about the time that has passed while this animal has been hidden. . , embedded in the rock. Finding a giant penguin fossil is on another level, however. As more giant penguin fossils are discovered, we are filling in more of the gaps in history. It’s very exciting.”

The research is further detailed in an article titled “A fossil Oligocene giant penguin from the North Island of New Zealand’, published today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The study describes Kairuku waewaeroa as a new fossil penguin species and provides a more complete picture of giant penguin diversity.

Reference: “A giant Oligocene fossil penguin from the North Island of New Zealand” by Simone Giovanardi, Daniel T. Ksepka and Daniel B. Thomas, September 16, 2021, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1953047

The research was led by PhD student Simone Giovanardi, with Dr Daniel Ksepka, Bruce Museum and Dr Daniel Thomas, Massey University.

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